The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Written by Carl Mayer & Hans Janowitz
Directed by Robert Wiene
One hundred years ago, during the Weimar Republic period in Germany, this silent horror film was released. This was a time of fertile artists in all media forms, especially the still-developing medium of cinema. Simultaneously, philosophy and psychology were carving out new avenues of thought and mental health, developing a more comprehensive understanding of consciousness and the inner world. The brutality of the war government and its aftermath fueled this exploration, an entire culture trying to make sense of itself, unaware of the dark journey they were taking and it’s horrific ends.
Francis sits on a bench next to an older man, both of them staring out into the distance. A dazed woman passes by, and Francis explains that she is his fiancee, and they have been through such a terrible time. We flashback to the village of Holstenwall, where the fair has come to town. Among the exhibitors is Dr. Caligari, a trollish man who advertises his somnambulist, Cesare. Somnambulism is a wakeful sleeping state, your mind in a state of unconsciousness while your body moves about freely. Caligari claims that Cesare can see the future, and when Francis’s friend asks when he will die, Cesare responds “before the dawn.”
Sure enough, the friend is found murdered in his home the next morning, the second in what becomes a series of murders. Francis believes Caligari is connected to the murders and begins investigating while the wily mad scientist creates more ruses and distractions to continue his operation. When Francis’s fiancee is taken by Cesare, everything begins to fall apart, and he pursues Caligari across the countryside and through the gates of a mental hospital. This is when the narrative takes a stark left turn and becomes something much more unsettling and horrific.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a perfect example of German Expressionism in film. This artistic movement was centered around the idea of transforming the subconscious into the material. We see this is the distorted design of Holstenwall, buildings, doors, and windows at exaggerated and distorted angles. There’s the constant evocation of dreams and waking so that you begin to realize we are experiencing Francis’s story directly through his subconscious.
Dream logic drives the story causing it to unfold like a dark post-World War I fairy tale. This is a choice to reject realism, possibly because what we perceive as “real” is often a construct of society & institutions. It is the inner mind that holds truth, a connection to universal cosmic forces. Physicality does play an essential role in the performances of the actor, especially Conrad Veidt as Cesare. The somnambulist is a lanky, spider character, a proto-zombie with his darkened eyes. Cesare is at turns both sympathetic and frightening. He’s under Caligari’s control, but there are questions about where the sleeping man’s free will has gone. He does seem driven by his personal desire in some moments, but in others, he is an obedient servant.
The horror of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is ultimately revealed to be that we can never be sure what is reality and what is a dream. As humans with active subconscious lives, we are victims of delusion and illusion. Are we actually all like Cesare, believing we are in control of our actions while really having our strings pulled by a monstrous troll outside our sphere of understanding? Or is even that a figment of an overactive imagination, trapped inside the hells of our own making.